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Western High Cotton award winner takes control of his destiny

The irony of the origin of this year's Western High Cotton Award winner's nickname is not lost in his profession as an Arizona cotton farmer.

Casa Grande, Ariz., producer Paul Ollerton's handle is “Paco.” The family-given moniker was gleaned from a Robert Mitchum character in a 1945 Zane Grey western movie, “West of the Pecos.” He was given his a.k.a to distinguish him from his father, also a Paul.

“My dad has a middle name. I don't, so junior wouldn't work,” explained Paco. Junior would not fit the 48-year-old third generation Pinal County, Ariz., cotton farmer either. Being named after a Mitchum character does.

Mitchum was the quintessential cinematic tough guy. Likewise, choosing to be an Arizona cotton farmer is no job for a Casper Milquetoast, especially for someone who has been farming on his own only since the early 1980s. Cotton prices have plummeted and costs have doubled since Ollerton decided on farming as his life's work. Over that same span, Arizona's cotton industry has had to battle back from the brinks of more than one disaster; pink bollworm, silverleaf whitefly and sticky cotton, boll weevil and skyrocketing water costs just to name a few.

Many have not survived during the past two decades, which would qualify for a television series called “Arizona Cotton Survivor.” Cotton acreage in the Grand Canyon State was less than 250,000 acres in 2002. It once totaled 800,000.

Fight for reversal

Those who remain are not giving up without a valiant fight. Changes are happening to reverse the trend, and one of the leaders of what hopefully will be a new era is this year's Cotton Foundation/Farm Press Western High Cotton Award winner.

He is representative of today's cotton farmer, one who scratches for every cash flow dollar from anywhere he can. Ollerton owns less than 10 per cent of the 2,000 acres of land upon which he farms cotton, small grains and alfalfa as Tierra Verde Farms. He doesn't have generations of family farmland equity beneath him. He has to rely on his economic wits to survive on rental ground.

However, Ollerton has a good partner. He met his collaborator when she came to survey for a Soil Conservation Service basin leveling job on his Coolidge, Ariz., farm. She put a note under his pickup windshield wiper inviting him out for a beer when he finished landplaning that day. They have been married for more than 20 years.

It has not been your typical husband and wife farming partnership. For one thing, she will not keep the books. However, she will rise at 4 a.m. to start plant mapping a cotton field before Arizona's blazing sun gets too high.

Karen Ollerton is the daughter of an Arizona cattle rancher. She holds an agricultural degree from the University of Arizona. She's also a recent graduate of the National Cotton Council's leadership program. And, she is rabid about agricultural research.

“I am a scientist. I love to be in the fields and see what is happening,” said Karen.

Attend together

Karen and Paco together attend field days and research meetings. On a recent cotton tour at UA's Maricopa Agricultural Center (MAC), the two were sitting in separate rows. Karen was quizzing an entomologist about his research. The scientist was lamenting the fact he could use a big block of cotton — say 300 acres — to test his theories. Paco, sitting behind his wife, heard that and reached around the seat and lovingly covered her mouth before Karen could answer.

Paco is not anti-research. It's the acreage where he differs with Karen.

“I could not afford the multi-peril insurance for all of what she'd like to do on our farm with researchers,” laughed Paco.

The Ollertons have four to five research plots on his farm each year. The person who nominated Paco for the High Cotton Award, Steve Husman, UA area Extension agent for field crops in Pinal and Pima counties, cited the Ollertons for many years as cooperators with UA agronomists, weed scientists and entomologists.

“Paul is a very astute producer who is continually integrating new technologies and scientific principles into his management strategies,” said Husman.

That interest extends well beyond his turnrows. Ollerton is currently chairman of the Arizona Cotton Research and Production Council, on several committees of the Arizona Cotton Growers Association, including the pioneering seed breeding committee which has released the nation's first grower-owned cotton variety.

On many boards

He also sits on the cotton advisory board for Arizona's director of agriculture and is on the pure seed adviser committee for the state's crop improvement association. He is also on the Arizona Grain Research and Promotion and will become a delegate to the National Cotton Council at the association's next annual meeting in February.

He knows how he got on some of those boards. He is not sure about others as he smiles at Karen. She just laughs.

“I am not politically motivated. I don't like politics, but I have learned to live with it. However, I like the leadership part of it — getting things done. I really like the research side of the activities I am involved in off the farm,” said Ollerton.

Last fall he took three college credit courses on soils, integrated pest management and diseases offered by UA at MAC.

As a rental ground producer, Ollerton has farmed in a variety of locations and along the way Karen has roamed the fields. They've managed jojoba farms and operated a custom harvesting business.

Karen typically spends two to three days a week during the growing season plant mapping cotton while attending the duties of mother to Byron, 8 and Robyn, 15.

“I would rather be in the field than in an office,” said Karen. “I like to call myself the backup quarterback to Paco.”

However, last summer she slacked off, but not by choice. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at cotton planting time and underwent treatment during the season. She's cancer free now and ready to resume her job as plant mapper. Oh yeah, she also was busy last summer finishing her year in the National Cotton Council Leadership Program, an appointment she sought at Paco's insistence.

Spouse Paco accompanied her to class activities and relates enthusiastically what he picked up accompanying Karen during her year in the program.

The Ollertons consistently yield 2.75 to 3 bales of cotton. They farm in four different irrigation districts within Pinal County.

He farms narrow-row, 32-inch cotton. Most of his soils are lighter and narrow-row yields better. “We worked with Jeff Silvertooth (former state UA cotton specialist) on narrow-row research. It consistently yields better than 38 or 40 year after year,” said Ollerton.

Practices IPM

Not surprisingly, he practices IPM. “I hate to start spraying for insects, but you have to if you farm in Arizona. When you start, it often begins a cycle of destroying beneficials. That's the part I don't like,” he said, adding, “I like using pheromones for pinkies. The insect growth regulators we used to bring whitefly under control have been wonderful.”

Paco also headed up a pest control district several years ago where growers banded together to control pink bollworm and whitefly. “I think it worked extremely well in keeping pests down, but it lost funding and grower support,” he said. The latter often occurs when growers are assessed equally yet not everyone's fields are treated. “People have to be committed. It's too bad when they're not,” he said.

It's also expensive to treat for insects like it is to control weeds. That's why Ollerton has resorted to banding 18-inches of the preplant herbicide Prowl. “When you do that you spend pennies on the dollar and in today's economy that makes a lot of sense,” he said.

He uses Staple over the top for morningglory control and Diuron at layby for weed problems, primarily rhizome johnsongrass and morningglory. Precision guidance cultivation technology also minimizes herbicide use.

Bt cottons

Arizona is the commercial birthplace of transgenic cottons. It was there that some of the first seed increases were grown. It is also one of the most effective areas for use of Bt cotton since PBW is most susceptible to the technology.

It is expensive technology and some growers like Ollerton use it sparingly. PBW pressure has historically been light where Ollerton farms, but he was about 30 percent Bt varieties in 2002, mostly all stacked varieties, because of the 9-11 attack on America.

When those planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, aerial applicators were grounded in 2001.

“We had some fields where pinkie trap counts blew up, and we were afraid that we had a large over-wintering population. That is where we planted Bt in 2002 as insurance,” he said.

He likes the Roundup Ready technology, but for most irrigated areas timing is tricky. Dry planting and irrigating up can push growers precariously close to the cutoff for over-the-top Roundup.

He said when the technology arrives to allow him to apply Roundup beyond the four leaf stage, “that will be wonderful.”

The issues of cotton yield and lint quality that have been a heated debate in the cotton industry for several years cut to the heart of the Arizona cotton industry. Arizona's average cotton yield is double the national average, but that is not the whole story. Unfortunately, Arizona cotton has been cursed with low quality, more specifically high micronaire than can lead to discounts of 10 cents or more per pound.

Quality importance

Husman cites Ollerton as leading what is a growing chorus of Arizona producers who contend without quality, yield means little.

“Paco is extremely aware that fiber quality in addition to yield is becoming increasingly important in the marketing picture,” said Husman.

“We have got to produce good quality cotton and we can do it in Arizona. I have produced bales that were only 50 to 100 points off December futures. It had near-Acala strength and length,” he said. “I have also had some ugly cotton that was discounted 10 cents per pound.”

“We must be able to produce good quality cotton for the Arizona cotton industry to thrive,” said Karen. “Maybe we ought to think about building a textile mill so we can grow and sell finished products. I think it would definitely add to the longevity to cotton in Arizona.”

“It may take a niche cotton for Arizona to prosper,” said Paco. “We've talked about that within the seed breeding committee trying to develop new varieties more well-suited for Arizona.”

Researchers have shown that there are more factors influencing micronaire than variety alone. Weather and agronomic practices play roles, but variety is where many growers start the discussion about micronaire.

The Ollertons market their cotton through long-time Arizona merchant, Handwerker-Winburne. “As long as cotton prices are low, I'd rather be the one in control of making marketing decisions.

“I have been with Bill Winburne for several years. Handwerker-Winburne have developed markets for Arizona cotton. They understand what we produce,” he said.

Pop payments

Ollerton has used options and forward contracting in the past. However, the pop payments of late have made those forms of risk manager too great a gamble, he says. “I don't think you want to pop your cotton until you are ready to sell,” said Ollerton. “There is too much uncertainty today. I think we learned our lesson a few years ago when the market collapsed.”

The Ollertons expect somewhat smooth sailing ahead for their cotton thanks to the federal farm bill. Paco admits there is still a bit of uncertainty about how much it will help. “I think it will help about six cents per pound over last year,” he said. The new farm bill will not likely create statewide Arizona acreage increase in 2003, but “once the confusion and uncertainty over the farm bill goes away, I think you'll see an acreage increase in Arizona in 2004.”

The past two decades have been anything but easy street farming for Paco and Karen. Nevertheless, Ollerton says “there is nothing else I'd rather do. I love farming.

“Karen and I have talked about what we'd do if we could not farm cotton financially. We'd farm something else somewhere else, but for right now I think there is a future for farming and cotton here in Pinal County — at least for our generation.”

Pinal County is in the heart of Arizona, with Phoenix to the north and Tucson to the south, both booming urban areas. Some day they will converge literally in the Ollertons' backyard, which is only a stone's throw from Interstate 10 connecting the two major metropolitan areas.

“We love what we do. We love the challenges,” said Karen. “I'm healthy and ready for the next 50 years.”

e-mail: [email protected]

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